Ars Nova · New Music / Helge Slaatto · Frank Reinecke
Guillaume de Machaut | Wolfgang von Schweinitz | Philippe de Vitry
Helge Slaatto / Frank Reinecke
The music of Guillaume de Machaut and Philippe de Vitry was radically new over 650 years ago; Vitry himself coined the term "ars nova" for it. Now Helge Slaatto (violin) and Frank Reinecke (double bass) show how closely the power of this music was connected to the common intonation system of the time, based on pure perfect fifths, which lead to highly tense thirds. Wolfgang Schweinitz examined this system for a long time and became one of the pioneers of just intonation. "Study No. I op. 61a" can be considered the quintessential result of this work. Using the tiniest microtonal distinctions, for which he even developed his own notation system, he creates a music consisting purely of intervals derived from the harmonic series. The Slaatto-Reinecke duo, who have been specialists in just intonation for many years, draw a fascinating line from the Ars Nova of the 14th century to the New Music of our time.
Although adapted for string duo (and carefully according to specific Pythagorean tuning principles — 3-limit JI), the Ars Nova selections are clearly recognizable. Other than the choice of modern instruments, these are thus straightforward (& unadorned) interpretations, highlighting period tuning for contemporary audiences.
25 February 2019
Todd M. McComb
Although I haven't generally featured contemporary arrangements here, I do want to make a few remarks about Ars Nova - New Music, which features music by Machaut & De Vitry adapted for a modern string duo (of violin & double bass). In particular, the emphasis is on illustrating the importance of Pythagorean tuning to Ars Nova music — & the program thus includes a (9+') contemporary musical study on the divisions of the major third (as differing by the Pythagorean comma) as well.
The Ars Nova selections are generally performed without repeats (although the most elaboration is reserved for Machaut's monophonic lai, Amours doucement me tente in its first recorded performance...), such that an "essential" quality is conveyed — particularly by the sequence of twenty different songs by Machaut. These are wonderfully crisp, & generally briefly evocative interpretations.... The Machaut selections don't visit his most contrapuntally involved music, though, which might give an impression of the limits of the project or approach, but then the program turns to the academic motet in all its glory (albeit at an earlier stage than much of Machaut's music), in the De Vitry motets from Le Roman de Fauvel. The technical precision in each case is superlative, such that the performance provides an exceptionally clear illustration of Machaut's melodic & contrapuntal sense, and then serves substantially to clarify & amplify the detailed interactions in the motets as well. (Note that the adaptations thus go beyond two-voice settings.)
Although the performance itself is thus outstanding — & could serve as a worthwhile introduction to Ars Nova music in general — the historical comments included are more often dubious: I'd be inclined to look past them, given the fine performance, but they read specifically like something out of a music textbook from a couple of generations ago. When are these notions ever, finally updated? (Again, I think this is an emerging commentary on the increasing inability to find anything but mainstream commercial information online these days — at least absent much more effort than was required not so very long ago....) Also, there's an implication that these performers have somehow initiated Pythagorean tuning for this music, which likewise dates back nearly 40 years.... So although I strongly agree with the performers that Pythagorean tuning is essential to making much (sense) of the music, I simply find it strange that they seem to be operating so blindly with regard to decades of research on these points. (How is this even possible?) I guess I do have to give them a pass on that, though, since the actual sonic result is so polished & illuminating.